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Negative thought Patterns

The cognitive model for understanding depression is built on the supposition that an individual’s emotional state is largely determined by a typical style of thought patterns that underlie behaviour and decision-making.  One of the most influential thinkers in relation to this paradigm is Aaron Beck.  Beck proposed what he termed the cognitive triad as underlying depressive symptoms.

The Cognitive Triad

1)  The depressed individual has negative self-image.  The depressed individual considers herself of little value, and in some way faulty.  She believes that her negative experiences are the result of some personal defect. 

2)  The depressed individual tends to interpret her experiences in a negative way.  Situations are often interpreted in a manner that reinforces her negative beliefs about her self worth and her inability to negotiate the problems that the world presents. 

3)  The depressed individual is convinced that there will be little improvement in her condition in the future, and that negative circumstances will continue forever.  In the immediate future, she tends to view many undertakings as doomed to failure, and all too often sees tasks as being overly difficult and goals as unobtainable. 


Depressed individuals tend to overgeneralize negative thoughts

Beck’s cognitive model proposes that depressed individuals have a tendency to selectively pay attention to negative information concerning themselves, and ignore positive information.  Beck outlines 6 ways in which depressed individuals do this.

  1. Arbitrary inference.  This refers to a tendency to draw a negative conclusion without evidence to support this conclusion.
  2. Selective abstraction.  This refers to a tendency to focus on one negative detail in a situation, whilst ignoring more obvious and positive details and drawing conclusions based on the negative detail.
  3. Overgeneralization.  This refers to a tendency to draw a negative conclusion on the basis of a small number of incidents and applying some kind of resulting rule to all related and even unrelated situations.  E.g. if a depressed individual were to forget a person’s birthday, she might concluded ‘I am a bad friend, no wonder people don’t want to be my friend, I always let people down’.
  4. Magnification and minimization.  This refers to judging the significance of an event to be of far greater importance than need be necessary.  For example, if someone were to be annoyed with a depressed individual, she may think to herself, ‘I’ve angered this person so much that they now hate me and will never like me again.’
  5. Personalization.  This refers to a tendency to blame oneself for negative events or occurrences when in fact, there is no connection between the event and the individual. 
  6. Absolutistic, dichotomous thinking.  This refers to the tendency to place all things into extreme categories.  E.g. everything is either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, or a person is either ‘wonderful’ or ‘evil’.  Typically the depressed individual sees herself in the negative extreme of these categorisations.  However, at times she may unrealistically attempt to consider herself to be ‘better than anyone’ at something or in the unrealistically positive extreme.  This may be an attempt to offset negative feelings about herself by thinking of herself in the unrealistic opposite extreme. 

In the above example, where the individual forgot her friend’s birthday and thought, ‘I am a bad friend, no wonder people don’t want to be my friend, I always let people down’, a more realistic inference might have been, ‘since I have been suffering from depression I have become quite forgetful.  However I don’t always forget important things, and I don’t always let people down.  In fact sometimes I do caring things for people I care about.' 

Cognitive Therapy

To return to the contents page of the cognitive therapy section of this wesite click on the link below.  Alternatively, click on 'Inability to cope with daily tasks' to be taken to the next page in this section.

Cognitive therapy contents page

Page 2: Inability to cope with daily tasks and chores


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